Mechanical engineering undergraduate student Tammi Chen was not interested in buying a miniature BB-8 “Star Wars” toy. She wanted a bigger one — a robot whose body could actually roll around. Teaming up last summer with a friend, she said, “We can totally build one. So we did.”
Modifying a tutorial she found online, Chen and Megan Charity, an undergraduate computer science major, created a hamster wheel drivetrain controlled by a microcontroller board and two motors. “You can turn by slowing down one wheel and speeding up another one,” Chen explained.
Chen, from Short Pump, is a rising junior in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering. Fascinated by technology and drawn to the arts, she has parlayed skills honed on her high school robotics team to become lead machinist for Hyperloop at VCU. The team is one of only 11 in the United States, and one of 20 internationally, to advance to the 2018 finals of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, California, on July 22.
“Being able to build the pod and go to California is exciting,” Chen said. “I didn’t expect that much from us because we’re a rookie team. I didn’t realize we were going to get this far, which is really awesome.”
In middle school, Chen discovered that the things she liked doing, such as building balsa wood bridges and programming LEGO robots, all fell within the field of engineering. “That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. That seems cool.”
She recalled being one of only a couple of girls in a technology class. “It was a little awkward in the beginning because I was very shy in middle school.” She decided not to let it bother her. “I enjoy the stuff that I’m doing. I don’t really care if there are any other girls in the class.”
In high school, she took chemistry and advanced math and got involved with the robotics team. “I stuck with it all four years because I enjoyed it,” she said.
Matthew Petrie was one of her mentors on the Blue Cheese robotics team at Deep Run High School in Glen Allen.
“She’s a very talented, young up-and-coming engineer,” said Petrie, a mechanical engineer at Powertrain Control Solutions in Ashland. “As far as the mechanical side goes, she has a really good eye for detail and understanding the function of each part she needs to fabricate.”
Chen became an expert on the lathe machine, which shapes material by rotating it as a tool cuts into it. “I wasn’t good at it to begin with,” she said. “I went a little too fast and I broke all three pieces that they gave me. So definitely a learning curve. But I learned to use it, I enjoyed using it.”
Petrie said the FIRST Robotics Competition “gives the teams the ability for students to pursue their own interests and really grow into them. If the kids are mechanically inclined, we get them exposed to this heavy equipment that allows them to fabricate parts. If they’re interested in design, we get them exposed to SolidWorks or Inventor modeling programs.”
Chen and several other high school robotics team members ended up joining forces again at VCU. Their previous history made it easy for them to rely on each other’s expertise. Hyperloop vice president Brendan Fisher, who was in her high school class, and pod design lead Tyler Brayton, who was one year ahead of them, were the computer-aided design experts on the high school team and took the lead on designing the Hyperloop pod.
“I knew the design was in good hands,” Chen said. “If anything needs to be built, I can do it. They know that, because we were on the same team and that’s how our dynamic always works.”
During the build and assembly, Chen described how various team members, including robotics alumni Vineet Polam and Logan Schorr, would take turns with each step. Mechanical co-lead Patrick Welch would cut the materials down to size for Chen. She would drill holes then “I’d give it to Vineet and he’d tap it, which creates the thread inside.”
Chen takes pride in passing along skills and knowledge. She taught Stacey Mescher, a rising high school senior who is interested in studying mechanical engineering, how to use the lathe in high school.
“Tammi was really good at showing me machines, the ins and outs of them,” Mescher said. In addition, “she taught me good leadership and communication skills,” such as convincing people to do what you need without having to give them direct orders.
One of Chen’s professors, Karla Mossi, Ph.D., said she stood out as a first-year student. “She likes to create for fun.” Hiring her as a teaching assistant, Mossi had Chen help design a lab to introduce first-year students to programming. “She’s so interested in technology and what’s next that she’s going to advance more quickly than the others,” Mossi said.
Chen, who wants to become a product designer, is considering graduate school programs in product design or industrial design. Peter Henry, Ph.D., an associate professor in the VCU Department of Focused Inquiry who recruited her to become a teaching assistant, said Chen is well-equipped for whatever her future holds.
“Some people are really good at thinking; some people are really good at doing,” Henry said. “The thinkers say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if ...’ and have an awesome plan but no follow-through. The doers knock it out, steadily punching in and punching out. Very few people are good at both, but Tammi is one of those people.”